I don’t have a name for this series yet (Every series needs a name doesn’t it?), but I’m looking at connections between issues in sustainable agriculture and church, theology and faith.
Modern science observed nature and made conclusions and theories from what they saw. Because science believed too much in its own abilities, it attempted to remake the world in its own image. Industrial agriculture is a perfect example.
Science found that three elements seemed to promote growth in plants: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. So, it reduced fertilizers to these three elements which it cooked up in the lab (using a lot of petroleum in the process). Voila! Industrial agriculture is born. It turns out that this approach misses some essential elements of soil composition that are more difficult to reproduce in the lab. So, there’s an example of how science attempted to observe and learn from nature, but ended up with a reductionist approach to what was discovered and ultimately became a destructive force.
Perhaps the same phenomenon can describe the (d)evolution of the modern church. The church growth movement succumbed to this kind of hubris. McGavran and others found formulas that seemed to accurately describe how to grow churches, lower cultural barriers and focus on homogenous groups being the two key points. However, I would suggest that the point of the church is not to grow, but to be faithful. As Yoder points out we are to be obedient, not effective.
Perhaps in both cases we have confused the purpose of agriculture and the church. Agribusiness and science teamed up to create an agriculture bent on primarily profits and yield without attention to the numerous other factors that contribute to a healthy and sustainable relationship with nature. The obsession with growth and effectiveness in the church has also distorted our relationship to the world. Those outside the church are primarily seen as converts or non-christians rather than children of God.
Similarly industrial agriculture sees its cost-benefit primarily in terms of dollar signs and market share instead of considering whole ecosystems and interrelationships of soil, plants, and animals (we are after all animals too). Little thought is given to the world industrial agriculture is bequeathing to our children, while there is much hand wringing over the constant fluctuation of stock prices.
The antidote to both these seems to be to return to observation of nature. In both science and theology, there is a necessary amount of humility that allows for the unknown and the mysterious. Observing nature as if for the first time can call into question our assumptions and remind us of our place within it. This silence allows room for the Other and room for each of us to engage the world and each other as fellow children of God rather than competitors in the free marketplace of religious and scientific ideas.